Sunday, 5 February 2012

Disability Etiquette for Service Professionals

Given that more visitors are coming to Singapore, and restaurants, hotels, transport services and businesses are due to receive a more colorful mix of clients, front-line staff are bound to encounter individuals with a physical disability at some point in their line of work.

On top of presenting quality customer service, staff would have to ensure such individuals are treated in a way where their experience would not end up as a vehement Tripadvisor critique of the Singaporean's lack of sensibility towards disabled people.

A key thing to remember is that while these individuals may face difficulties, it is necessary to remember that the physical challenges they face are already social stigmas that attracts unwanted attention. Distracting as it may be, you can eliminate unnecessary embarrassment or awkwardness for yourself (in case you appear ignorant, unhelpful or worse, useless) by being professional and taking responsible direction to approach the individual. You may be afraid to approach him/her, but remember that by avoiding addressing your customer, he/she would feel more conscious of their physical impediments.

With or without specialized training, service professionals should take the initiative to accommodate individuals with physical disabilities. One might ask this man waiting in a Thai airport if he needs assistance in locating his belongings or clearing through customs.

Progressive service employers would have already taught you to be the first to greet your audience, so take the initiative to give the visitor a warm welcome. This would allow him or her to feel more comfortable in your presence, and allow them to advance along their service/tourist experience in your commercial space. You already know the importance of making the customer feel appreciated, so even if they are not patronizing your services, there is no harm in making them feel honored as a welcome guest in Singapore.

Accessibility need not be restricted to the design of products or the built environment. It is important to incorporate a level of humanistic sensibility into your representation of your employer and country's social awareness for disabilities. Be sure that your language is also respectful and considerate; there is no need to treat these persons as fragile invalids. While mobility aid-users may require additional assistance, they only seek to be treated normally like other guests. Do not make them feel more vulnerable than they already are. 

Always acknowledge them as a man/woman first (Good evening Sir/Miss), a welcome guest (Welcome to our hotel), and then address your concerns for their interests and needs in your boutique, bar or B&B (Would you require assistance checking into a room tonight?).

Here is a useful guide on using the right language and etiquette when encountering physically disabled individuals in the service line:

Word Choice

  • When referring to someone with a disability, put the person first. Say “person with a disability” or “man with epilepsy” rather than “a disabled person,” “an epileptic man,” etc. People with disabilities are people first.
  • Avoid dropping the word “person” altogether - don't say “the disabled,” “an epileptic,” etc. A person is not a condition or a disease.
  • Don't hesitate to use figures of speech that include words like “see,” “hear,” “walk,” etc. It is appropriate to ask a person who uses a wheelchair if they want to go for a walk. It is also okay to ask a person who is blind if they saw a movie. Don't say “wheelchair bound” or “confined to a wheelchair.” People who use wheelchairs often consider them liberating, not confining. The preferred term is “using a wheelchair.”
  • Don't say “crippled,” “victim,” “stricken with,” “suffers from.” All of these have negative connotations. They also make great assumptions. People with disabilities don't always suffer or feel like victims.
  • Don't say “handicapped” unless you are referring to a specific barrier, like stairs. That is the proper context for using the term.
  • Phrases like “physically challenged,” “handicapable,” “otherly able” are vague and weak in meaning. “People with disabilities” tells it like it is.

Customer Service

  • Treat people with disabilities with respect. Speak directly to the person with a disability. If you are providing service in a restaurant or store, don't ask her companion what she would like for dinner or what size she wears.
  • Don't provide assistance without asking first whether or not it is needed. If the person accepts your offer, allow him to explain how best to help.
  • Don't lean on a person's wheelchair or hover over her. If you are exchanging more than a few words, sit down if possible, so that the person can more comfortably look you in the eye without straining her neck.
  • When you greet a person who is blind, identify yourself and anyone with you. Also, be sure to let him know when you are walking away.
  • Never grab the arm of a person who is blind and try to lead her. If you want to help, first ask if she would like assistance, and then allow her to take your arm.
  • If the person has a hearing disability, use a gentle touch on the arm to get his attention. Look directly at the person as you speak, and don't cover your mouth or eat while doing so. Do not shout. Written notes can facilitate communication.
  • If the person has a speech disability, don't try to rush her or finish her sentences. Don't pretend you understand her if you don't really know what she is saying. If you are having trouble understanding a particular word or phrase, ask her to say it in a different way.

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